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No writer has exerted a more profound influence on modern literature and culture than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). The Gay Science stands as one of his most beautiful, most idea-rich books. The phrase “gay science” [fröhliche Wissenschaft, gaya scienza] is Nietzsche’s term for a revaluation of philosophical thought and style. It describes a movement from the traditional, overly serious “German” conception of philosophy, to a freer, more cheerful “Provençal” approach. The book is the culmination of his aphoristic works, his so-called “free-spirit” period. Here Nietzsche provides the first clear statement of his most important philosophical ideas, and presents some of his most polished prose and poetry. He called The Gay Science his “most personal” book. It is arguably the best expression we have of Nietzsche’s subtle, passionate, and joyful outlook on life. It is his declaration of independence from the style and substance of traditional philosophy, and his declaration of war against “the spirit of gravity.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Saxony, on October 15, 1844. He was the first of three children born to Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor, and his wife, Franziska Oehler. His sister, Elisabeth, was born in 1846, and a brother, Joseph, was born a year later. In the summer of 1849, Nietzsche’s father succumbed to “softening of the brain” [Gehirnerweichung] and died. Following the death of his infant brother the following winter, Nietzsche’s mother took him and his sister to live in Naumburg. By the age of twelve he began to suffer from the health problems that would plague him his entire life. These included migraine headaches, painful eye pressure and diminished sight, and stomach problems that often led to prolonged bouts of vomiting. In 1858, Nietzsche was awarded a scholarship and began attending Pfortaschule, the most prestigious boarding-school in Germany. For the next six years he flourished under its strict educational regimen. He graduated in 1864, and attended two semesters at the University of Bonn as a dissatisfied theology student. The following year he matriculated at the University of Leipzig and began pursuing what he then regarded as his true calling, classical philology. At this time he also discovered the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), a philosopher who would have a profound effect upon his views.
In 1869 Nietzsche accepted a professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel, in Switzerland. At this time he became an intimate friend of the composer, Richard Wagner (1813–83) and his significant other, Cosima von Bülow (daughter of Franz Liszt), who were living in a villa near Basel. For the next few years Wagner would serve as Nietzsche’s confidant, sounding board, object of adoration, and ersatz father. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, appeared in 1872. Although revolutionary for both philology and philosophy, the book’s unabashed praise of Wagner’s “music of the future” seemed to offset much of its merit in the eyes of the academic community. From 1873 to 1876, the four essays that comprise his Untimely Meditations were published. These were followed by Human, All Too Human (1878), its two addenda (Assorted Opinions and Maxims  and The Wanderer and His Shadow ), Daybreak (1881), and The Gay Science (1882), which embody Nietzsche’s so-called “free-spirit” [Freigeisterei] period. They express a radical departure from his earlier writings in both style and substance. Owing to his persistent bad health, he resigned his teaching position and was provided a modest pension, which allowed him to travel throughout Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and southern France, in an attempt to find a climate both amenable to his precarious health and conducive to his productivity. Nietzsche’s literary experimentalism and philosophical power reaches a crescendo in his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), which he regarded as “the greatest present that has ever been made to [humanity] so far.” (Ecce Homo, preface, 4.) This was followed, in 1886, by Beyond Good and Evil, a more organized exposition of his thought. A year later he published the three essays entitled On the Genealogy of Morals, and produced a new edition of The Gay Science, to which he added a preface, some poems, and a fifth “book.” In the productive year 1888, he published The Case of Wagner, and composed four additional works: Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Nietzsche contra Wagner, and Ecce Homo. A good deal of this material is polemical in the extreme and provides the critical foundation for his proposed “revaluation of all values”: Nietzsche’s avowed “destiny” to bring to light the unnatural, mendacious, and injurious character and motives of Christianity; and to provide a more natural, more responsible, and healthier approach to human existence. This program was, however, cut short by his mental collapse in January of 1889, brought about by the tertiary stage of syphilis. He spent the last eleven years of his life in institutions or under the care of his sister, Elisabeth. Nietzsche died of a heart attack on August 25, 1900.
In a letter to Lou Salomé, dated July 2, 1882, Nietzsche says that The Gay Science completed
six years’ work (1876–1882)—all my “free-thinking” [Freigeisterei]. And what years! What tortures of every kind, what periods of loneliness, of disgust with life! And as a homemade remedy against all this, against life as much as death, I brewed my own little potions, those ideas of mine with their little patches of unclouded sky above them.
Like Human, All Too Human and Daybreak, Nietzsche expresses himself in The Gay Science through the use of aphorisms. An aphorism is the expression of an idea or a theme of ideas in a terse, pithy, more-or-less self-contained passage, ranging in length from a single sentence to a few pages. Although the technique had been pioneered by writers like François de La Rochefoucauld (1613–80) and G. C. Lichtenberg (1742–99), Nietzsche regarded his own use of the technique as revolutionary.
The aphorism, the apothegm, in which I am the first among Germans to be a master, [is] the form of “eternity”; it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book. (Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” § 51)
Besides the difference in presentation between Nietzsche’s earlier essays and his aphoristic works, there is a marked difference in approach and method. The ideas in The Birth of Tragedy are expressed in an erratic, exuberant, and highly romanticized style. The views in the Untimely Meditations are, by and large, offered in a much more refined and reserved fashion. During the period covering 1876–78, when he was writing Human, All Too Human, a number of important events occurred in his life that changed him. The year 1876 began with what he described as a “real breakdown.” He found himself “in the throes of a serious disease of the brain,” which he regarded as the source of the persistent and debilitating pains in his stomach and eyes (Letter to Carl von Gersdorff, January 18, 1876). Because of his precarious health, Nietzsche was relieved of his teaching duties early in the year. The following two years saw the twilight of two of his most important idols. The door closed on his relationship with Wagner, and he renounced his adoration of Schopenhauer. The vacuum left by these losses was filled by a most unlikely person—the philosopher, Paul Rée (1849–1901). Nietzsche’s friendship with Rée began in 1874, reached fruition during 1876–82, and ended abruptly late in 1882. Rée published two books during his association with Nietzsche: Psychological Observations (1875), which was presented in aphorisms; and The Origin of Our Moral Sentiments (1877), which exhibited a skeptical, scientific methodology with regard to moral issues.
Rée’s influence on Nietzsche’s thought shines through in Human, All Too Human. It is a book of aphorisms, and it was regarded by some of Nietzsche’s readers as a reversal of many of his previous commitments. Gone is the gushing hyperbole concerning Schopenhauer, Wagner, and the Romantic attitude. Idealism in all its forms is now the foe: “One error after another is coolly placed on ice; the ideal is not refuted—it freezes to death” (Ecce Homo, 3, “Human, All Too Human,” § 1). The pillars of Nietzsche’s procedure here are skepticism concerning the extravagant claims of metaphysics, morality, and religion; scientific objectivity with respect to determining which philosophical questions are, in fact, capable and worthy of being answered; and analytic precision and economy with regard to the answers provided. These pillars represent the essence of what some of Nietzsche’s readers called his “positivism,” and what he himself called his “Réealism.” In his next book, Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche provides his most detailed and sustained critique of “the prejudices of morality.” This would become one of his chief concerns in later writings. He here employs the scalpel of skeptical analysis to the psychological and historical motives behind morality in general and Christian morality in particular.
The Gay Science is a transition and bridge between the earlier aphoristic books, with their cool, critical analyses of human knowledge, belief, and morality, and the more experimental style of his so-called “mature” philosophy. Nietzsche began work on the book in the summer of 1881, while he was living in Sils-Maria, in southeastern Switzerland. During this summer he suffered incessantly from headaches and severe eyestrain, which he understood to be the effects of the electrical discharges of the frequent thunderstorms. When not bedridden from headaches or confined to a dark room to comfort his eyes, he spent much of his time hiking in the forests around Lake Silvaplana and the mountains surrounding the Upper Engadin valley. While in letters he often bemoans his separation from his friends, during this time he cherishes and jealously guards his isolation as an essential condition for the birth of his new and dangerous ideas. In a letter to Peter Gast, dated August 14, 1881, he writes:
Thoughts have emerged on my horizon the likes of which I’ve never seen—I won’t even hint at what they are, but shall maintain my own unshakable calm. I suppose now I’ll have to live a few years longer! Ah, my friend, I sometimes think that I lead a highly dangerous life, since I’m one of those machines that can burst apart. The intensity of my feelings makes me shudder and laugh. Several times I have been unable to leave my room….[b]ecause I’d cried too much on my wanderings the day before. Not sentimental tears, mind you, but tears of joy, to the accompaniment of which I sang and talked nonsense, filled with a new vision far superior to that of other men.
Nietzsche originally intended his new book to be an extension of his previous one, a Daybreak II. But the new ideas that were taking shape demanded a new beginning and, ultimately, new stylistic modes of presentation. These new modes include poetry, parables that symbolically represent or parody Biblical imagery, and radically new prose experiments. The new ideas would, he thought, “make many recoil in horror from me” (Letter to Erwin Rohde, July 15, 1882).
At the beginning of October 1881, Nietzsche journeyed to the city of Genoa, in northeastern Italy, where for two months he languished under the effects of bad weather and its correlate, bad health. The year 1882 began with a long period of unseasonably pleasant weather—warm temperatures and bright, cloudless skies—which allowed Nietzsche to write down much of what would become books 1–3 of The Gay Science. With respect to the remaining parts, he told Peter Gast that he “was not mature enough to deal with the elemental ideas” he was forming, and that, “there is one idea which really needs thousands of years to develop properly” (Quoted in Hyman, p. 240). Despite his own caution, however, Nietzsche completed the draft for book 4 a couple weeks later. Near the end of March he made a voyage from Genoa to the city of Messina, in Sicily. During his three and a half weeks there he finalized book 4 and composed most of the poems that would make up the “Prelude in Rhymes.”
The Gay Science was published August 26, 1882. Nietzsche’s preface to the book, as well as all of book 5 (“We Fearless Ones”), and the concluding poems, “Songs of Prince Free-as-a-Bird,” were added in the second edition of the book published in 1887. These parts were composed after the innovations presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morals. Thus, much of what was introduced in nascent form in the first edition of The Gay Science was, in these additional parts, refined and developed.
Nietzsche regards the history of philosophy since the time of Socrates as symptomatic of a disease. The cure involves a reaffirmation of life: the expression of the intoxication of convalescence, the “voluptuousness of a triumphant gratitude, which must inscribe itself ultimately in cosmic capitals on the heaven of ideas.” The Gay Science is this cosmic inscription. Just as illness makes health sweeter and more precious, so too does Nietzsche’s “yea-saying” philosophy emerge all the more strong and healthy from the malady of two millennia.
Life—that means for us to transform constantly into light and flame all that we are, and also all that we meet with; we cannot possibly do otherwise. And as regards sickness, should we not be almost tempted to ask whether we could in general dispense with it? It is great pain only which is the ultimate emancipator of the spirit; for it is the teacher of the strong suspicion…. (Preface, § 3)
The Gay Science contains many ideas that Nietzsche had already incubated in other works of this “free-thinking” period. But here they take on new power and vitality. For example, the “strong suspicion” mentioned above becomes an expression of what he calls the intellectual conscience. For many people, the conscience is understood as some sort of disembodied “voice” that provides moral guidance. It tells us what we should (or, more often, what we should not) do in a given moral situation. Yet with respect to our capacities to think, to judge, to believe, not only is such guidance lacking, it is explicitly denied and avoided. For the vast majority of people, science and common sense serve as essential guides for understanding and explaining the world around us. Inconsistency is viewed as a weakness, as a lack of intellectual integrity. But when people are confronted with questions about religion or moral values, all common sense and healthy skepticism fall away. Claims and values are accepted without examination, without evaluation. “Truth” depends upon unqualified consensus, and is made venerable by the length of time it has been accepted. Whether such “truth” is externally consistent with our common sense or with science is unimportant. Whether it is internally consistent with itself or with similar claims is not even considered. Thus, “the greater number of people do not find it contemptible to believe this or that” (§ 2), to live their lives according to unexamined, rationally unjustified or unjustifiable beliefs. In fact, they look upon the individual who questions these beliefs and the psychological comfort they provide as a fool who is a danger to the herd, the community: “they despise him in his gladness, and laugh at the luster of his eye” (§ 3).
Nietzsche here draws a sharp distinction between noble and ignoble people and motives, a distinction presaged in his earlier “free-spirit” books, which would become the centerpiece for On the Genealogy of Morals. In The Gay Science, the ignoble nature “is distinguished by the fact that it keeps its advantage steadily in view”; the thought of personal comfort and advantage is “even stronger than its strongest impulse.” The noble nature, in contrast, is “more irrational”; the noble person “succumbs to his impulses, and in his best moments his reason lapses altogether” (§ 3). This distinction reaches its apex in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Nietzsche distinguishes between the overman [der Übermensch] and the last man [der letzte Mensch]. The overman is the ideal of humanity’s godless future: the personally responsible, passionate, this-worldly value-creator—“the meaning of the earth” (‘Zarathustra’s Prologue,’ § 3). The last man, on the other hand, is the person who seeks only comfort and predictability. Values like “good” and “evil” are regarded as objective, independent, mutually exclusive, and unconditional values instituted by God. When one recognizes this and lives accordingly, then the world (and, more importantly, the after-life in the other-world) becomes more comfortable and predictable.
‘No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse…. We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. (‘Zarathustra’s Prologue,’ § 5)
This ignoble character despairs of “evil,” understood as passion, individualism, self-sufficiency, and pride; while the noble type realizes that “the strongest and most evil spirits have hitherto advanced mankind the most; they always rekindle the sleeping passions” (The Gay Science, § 4). The noble individual recognizes that contrasting values such as “good” and “evil,” “pleasure” and “pain,” are, in fact, not mutually exclusive categories, but rather ever-shifting, ever-changing grades and shades of meaning instituted by human value-creators. They are, according to Nietzsche, mutually implicative of one another. “Good” has no meaning independent of its contrast, “evil”; “pleasure” has no reality apart from “pain.” Thus,
What if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other? ....If you want to depress and minimize man’s capacity for pain, well, you must also depress and minimize his capacity for enjoyment. (§ 12)
Inasmuch as these and all other values are dependent upon one another and, ultimately, dependent upon the human creator, they become, for the noble human being, the media of artistic creation. There is no objective source or standard of meaning; there are no values independent of human creators and interpreters. Each person is, then, both the artist and the work of his or her own artistic activity. The honesty required to acknowledge this situation would, if taken alone,
have disgust and suicide in its train. Now, however, our honesty has a counterpoise which helps us to escape such consequences—namely, Art, as the good-will to illusion….As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still endurable to us; and by Art, eye and hand and above all the good conscience are given to us, to be able to make such a phenomenon out of ourselves. (§ 107)
To the higher, nobler, more honest individual, life is artistic creation. Thus, “One Thing is Needful—To “give style” to one’s character—that is a grand and a rare art!” (§ 290.) In Beyond Good and Evil, this self-creating artist is described as a “philosopher of the future,” an “attempter [Versucher]” (§ 42), who plays with and manipulates values as a scientist does the materials of experiments, as an artist does the colors on the canvas. In this creative activity the desire for authentic truth is not a desire for comfort or well being. It is, in fact, the desire for opposition, for obstacles, for danger. In Twilight of the Idols, this view is succinctly expressed in one of Nietzsche’s most often quoted aphorisms: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (“Maxims and Arrows,” § 8). In The Gay Science, this attitude is expressed in the following terms:
For believe me! The secret of realizing the largest productivity and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live in danger! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! Live in war with your equals and with yourselves! (§ 283)
Many important ideas of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy are developed in The Gay Science: e.g., the mutual dependence of what has traditionally passed for independent and opposite values (good/evil, pleasure/pain); the location of the source of all such values in human creativity; and the distinction between noble and ignoble human types, vis à vis the former’s acceptance of the responsibility of value-creating. In his letter to Peter Gast mentioned earlier, Nietzsche indicated that there were other “elemental ideas” presented here which he “was not mature enough to deal with,” and that, “there is one idea which really needs thousands of years to develop properly.” These ideas would become pivotal for Nietzsche’s subsequent development. They are the death of God, the doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same, and his conception of amor fati, the “love of fate.”
Although Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God had been rehearsed earlier (e.g., Assorted Opinions and Maxims, § 225; The Wanderer and His Shadow, § 84), it is in The Gay Science that the idea and its implications are fully expressed. In one of Nietzsche’s most beautiful and most haunting passages, entitled, “The Madman,” he brings together the image of Diogenes the skeptic, who carried a lantern in broad daylight in search of “an honest man,” with the New Testament imagery of sacrifice, presented in the language of the Old Testament prophets.
A madman comes into the market place, crying, “I seek God!” The people gathered there are, for the most part, unbelievers, and are amused by the madman’s search. But then,
the insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him—you and I! We are his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? ...Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? ...God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife—who will wipe the blood from us? ...Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event, and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!” (§ 125)
The madman’s proclamation is met with silence. He throws down his lantern and says, “I come too early … lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time … to be seen and heard.”
In this parable many important threads come together. The proclamation is made by a madman, someone who lives and thinks outside the norms and values of society, someone who stands beyond good and evil. Like Diogenes, he, too, is looking for “an honest man”: people who possess the kind of integrity and “intellectual conscience” that allows them to take upon themselves the profound responsibility of value-creation. The proclamation that God is dead means, for Nietzsche, many things. Most obviously, it indicates that the traditional theological and moral conceptions of God as the source of existence and of moral values are no longer viable hypotheses. Nietzsche insists that we have outgrown this ancient and primitive account of things. Yet, notice that the madman’s audience is not a congregation of believers. His listeners are, for the most part, “modern” people, skeptical of religion, and probably devoted to modern science. Here we see Nietzsche’s conviction that God, like Proteus, can take on many forms. In addition to the theological conception of God as world-creator and moral value-bestower, God can be found in the philosophers’ assumptions of necessary, absolute, and unconditional laws of logic, metaphysics, and morals; in the aestheticians’ assumption of something called “absolute Beauty”; and in the modern scientists’ assumptions regarding the existence of necessary, absolute, and unconditional “laws of nature.” The proclamation that God is dead sounds the death-knell for all so-called absolute truths.
Notice, too, that God did not die of some prolonged, debilitating disease. God died of a willful act of violence: “We have killed him—you and I!” He has bled to death “under our knife.” According to Nietzsche, God, in his “absolute” and “unconditional” guises, is ultimately nothing more than a human value, a useful fiction. Like all human value-constructs, God is just an interpretation (or a misinterpretation) of natural phenomena, conjured up in the human mind, and employed for various human purposes, such as social control, justification of herd virtues, satisfaction of human vanity, etc. Thus, the “absolute” God served the ignoble, comfort-seeking “last men” as a very useful fiction: a means for maintaining and justifying their own weakness, impotence, and ignorance. In this context, God is a value (or a cluster of values) which humans have created in an effort to escape the awesome responsibility of value-creation. But humanity has, according to Nietzsche, moved beyond the conceptions and motives that were useful two thousand years ago. Since God was born and sustained through the activities of the value-creating human mind, it is fitting, for Nietzsche, that God be slain by the same agency. The proclamation is met, however, not with jubilation, but with silence. The madman concludes that his contemporaries aren’t yet strong or daring enough to acknowledge the event, or to accept the responsibility that it carries.
The second of Nietzsche’s “elemental ideas” expressed for the first time in The Gay Science, the one he suggests will require “thousands of years to develop properly,” is his notion of the eternal recurrence of the same. In Ecce Homo, he relates how the idea came to him:
the idea of the eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation, belongs in August 1881: it was penned on a sheet with the notation underneath, “6000 feet beyond man and time.” That day I was walking through the woods along the lake of Silvaplana; at a powerful pyramidal rock not far from Surlei I stopped. It was then that this idea came to me. (3, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, § 1)
In The Gay Science, the idea is first hinted at in section 233, entitled, “The Most Dangerous Point of View,” and it is made explicit in section 341, “The Heaviest Burden.” There it is presented as a thought-experiment: What if you had to relive your life in every detail? What if you had to experience every pain and sorrow, every pleasure and joy, every event, from the most important to the most mundane, again? What if you had to experience these things not just once more, but an infinite number of times? Nietzsche suggests that a person would respond to this suggestion in one of two ways; and the response made illustrates a fundamental insight into the person’s disposition toward life. On the one hand, there are those who would regard this suggestion with horror: “would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon who so spoke?” Such would be the response of “the last man,” of one who devalues and disparages the natural world and this life, in favor of some promised reward in the afterlife. Similarly, a nihilist would probably regard the infinite repetition of a meaningless existence as a mere amplification of meaninglessness. On the other hand, there are those who would regard the eternal recurrence of their lives as something profoundly desirable. If you have experienced one moment of real joy in life, and you understand how all the other events of life had to happen in order to bring it about, then you can affirm and justify the totality of your life, and find joy in its infinite repetitions. Thus, while the idea of eternal recurrence might crush “the last man,” it could utterly transform the noble, more responsible individual. For now every event in life, every choice, carries with it “the heaviest burden”: the realization that you are not acting or choosing for a single circumstance, but that this action or choice is being done or made for an infinite number of circumstances in the future. “How would you have to become favorably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?” (§ 341)
Nietzsche points out that the doctrine of the eternal recurrence is probably not original with him; that it might have been taught by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BCE) and, later, by the Stoic philosophers. (Cf. Ecce Homo, 3, “The Birth of Tragedy” § 3.) The idea had even been suggested by Nietzsche’s favorite poet, Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). What Nietzsche does with the idea, however, is utterly original. He regards his version of eternal recurrence as his most significant contribution to the history of ideas.
In The Gay Science, the idea is employed as a “what if?”—as a means for distinguishing between strong, life-affirming individuals, and weak, life-negating persons. However, eternal recurrence is much more than a mere thought experiment to distinguish psychological types. The doctrine may be characterized in the following way (cf. The Will to Power, § 1066): (1) space is finite; (2) space contains a finite amount of things (or “power” quanta); (3) the ways in which such things can be arranged is finite; (4) how such things are arranged is always a necessary arrangement; (5) time is infinite. Therefore, in infinite time, the necessary arrangements and configurations of a finite amount of things have repeated an infinite number of times in the past, and will repeat an infinite number of times in the future. Nietzsche calls this doctrine “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses,” and insists that, “the law of the conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence” (The Will to Power, §§ 55, 1063). Despite the strangeness of the hypothesis, Nietzsche insists that no alternative account is as viable as this one. Eschatological accounts, such as the Christian view regarding time and the world, fail with respect to both science and the criterion of internal consistency. The scientific, or mechanistic, account of the world fails for the simple reason that it must assume that the universe is moving toward some final state, e.g., exhaustion, equilibrium, etc. Yet, in infinite time, if the universe was so moving, it would have gotten there by now. “Because the world has not reached this [state], mechanistic theory must be considered an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis” (Ibid., § 1066).
In The Gay Science, the idea of eternal recurrence is made explicit in section 341, “The Heaviest Burden.” This is followed by section 342, “Incipit Tragædia” [“the Tragedy Begins”], which concludes the original edition of the book and which, with slight alterations, becomes the opening passage of Nietzsche’s next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There, all the major parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy come together, expressed in new and powerful forms of experimental prose. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra announces that “God is dead”; he proclaims the overman as a this-world antithesis to the abstract, otherworldly God, and contrasts the new ideal with the ignoble, self-satisfied “last man”; he instructs on the origin and nature of values; and he describes life as “will to power.” Yet, even this paragon of wisdom and insight falters before the idea of eternal recurrence. It is hinted at, struggled with, and suppressed until near the end of the third part, when Zarathustra is finally strong enough to endure the idea and its implications. In The Gay Science, the idea is used as a touchstone to distinguish between life-affirming and life-denying individuals, with the emphasis on the individual lifetime. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the protagonist’s concern is more generalized: what if all human history, all existence, was to be repeated in infinitum? What if all the pain and suffering and misery throughout history were to recur eternally? At the beginning of the book, in his conversation with an old saint, Zarathustra explains his reason for leaving his ten-year self-exile and returning to the world of humanity: “I love man” (“Zarathustra’s Prologue,” § 2). For Zarathustra, the terror and nausea he feels at the idea of eternal recurrence expresses his love, his pity for humanity. In The Gay Science, pity is said to be the source of “our greatest dangers” (§ 271). Zarathustra’s greatest danger is that his love of humans and the pity he feels for long-suffering humanity compels him to either share in this human suffering, or to “pass by” the suffering humans. How can one affirm the eternal repetition of all past human sorrow and misery as the necessary condition for a mere moment of joy in one’s life? Ecce tragædia.
The resolution of Zarathustra’s tragic conflict occurs in the intense and image-rich section entitled, “On the Vision and the Riddle.” Having come face to face with the doctrine of eternal recurrence, Zarathustra comes upon a nightmarish scene. He finds a young shepherd lying on the ground. A snake has crawled into the man’s mouth and has bit itself fast in his throat. Zarathustra tries unsuccessfully to help the man by pulling at the snake. He then cries out for the man to bite off the head of the snake: “Thus it cried out of me—my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked in me cried out of me with a single cry.”
The shepherd…bit as my cry counseled him; he bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake—and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human—one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter; and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that never grows still. My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh, how could I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now! (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 3, “On the Vision and the Riddle,“ § 2.)
The shepherd’s horrible circumstance clearly reflects Zarathustra’s own situation: he is suffocating and tortured by his pity for humanity. He realizes the necessity of past human suffering as the condition for a better, healthier, stronger, humanity—his hope for the future, the overman. Yet to will the one as a condition of willing the other, to overcome pity, requires a radically new attitude toward existence: amor fati, the “love of fate.” This is the third of Nietzsche’s “elemental ideas” made explicit for the first time in The Gay Science. It reconciles Nietzsche’s conception of the stronger, more creative, and more responsible individual, i.e., the overman; and the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche introduces the idea at the beginning of book 4 of The Gay Science:
I want more and more to perceive the necessary characteristics in things as the beautiful: I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly…. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer! (§ 276)
Throughout the book Nietzsche insists that the seemingly antithetical values (e.g., good/evil, pleasure/pain, etc.) are, in each case, two sides of the same coin. All originate in the human mind, and each implies and depends upon its so-called opposite value. Furthermore, our capacity to understand or experience one is intensified and deepened by our understanding or experience of the other. These facts express some of the “necessary characteristics of things” which Nietzsche wishes to regard as “beautiful.” If this insight is combined with the idea of eternal recurrence, where “the ugly” means all the misery and sorrow of human existence, both in the present and in the past, then amor fati appears as the ultimate challenge of overcoming. In Ecce Homo, he says the following:
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it. (2, § 10)
The eternal recurrence should not just be stoically accepted. It should be embraced and cherished, for “if we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence … in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed” (The Will to Power, § 1032). This “love of fate” is expressed in a radically new attitude toward existence, what Nietzsche calls the Dionysian attitude.
Book 5 of The Gay Science, “We Fearless Ones,” was added in the 1887 edition. It is a kind of microcosm of Nietzsche’s views wherein all the ideas of his mature philosophy find succinct expression. The book begins with a quotation from the French general, Henri Turenne (1611–75): “Carcass, you tremble? You’d tremble much more if you knew where I was taking you.” Here the Dionysian attitude is described in the following terms:
There are two kinds of sufferers: on the one hand those that suffer from overflowing vitality, who need Dionysian art, and require a tragic view and insight into life; and on the other hand those who suffer from reduced vitality, who seek repose, quietness, calm seas, and deliverance from themselves…. The being richest in overflowing vitality, the Dionysian god and man, may not only allow himself the spectacle of the horrible and questionable, but even the fearful deed itself, and all the luxury of destruction, disorganization, and negation. With him evil, senselessness and ugliness seem as it were licensed, in consequence of the overflowing plentitude of procreative, fructifying power, which can convert every desert into a luxuriant orchard. (§ 370)
For Nietzsche, Dionysus is the symbol of life, death, rebirth, creation through annihilation, irrational frenzy, divine ecstasy and madness. In Ecce Homo, he calls himself “the disciple of the philosopher Dionysus” (Preface, § 2), and describes himself in the following terms:
I am by far the most terrible human being that has existed so far; this does not preclude the possibility that I shall be the most beneficial. I know the pleasure in destroying to a degree that accords with my powers to destroy—in both respects I obey my Dionysian nature which does not know how to separate doing No from saying Yes. (4, § 2)
It is one of the saddest and strangest ironies in the history of ideas that “the madman,” Nietzsche’s figurative spokesman in announcing that God is dead, would become a literal description of the author himself. In January of 1889, Nietzsche succumbed to insanity, the effect of third-stage syphilis, which for the remaining eleven years of his life would progress to physical paralysis. In her book, Nietzsche, Lou Salomé suggests that Nietzsche’s madness was just the inevitable outcome of his philosophical views. While the real cause was no doubt somatic, i.e., his syphilis infection, there are several passages in his writings that suggest that his insanity was certainly not inconsistent with his philosophical insights. In Daybreak, he says the following:
All superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to pretend to be or make themselves mad…. To listen to the sighs of these solitary and agitated minds: “Ah, give me madness, you heavenly powers! Madness, that I might at last believe in myself!” (§ 14)
In The Gay Science, he suggests that “the law of agreement” has always been a condition for society and social values. The greatest danger to this is insanity; the arbitrariness of feelings and the joy of unreason—characteristics of new value-creators. (Cf. § 76.) These higher human beings seek to go beyond the good and evil of their own time:
That one wants in fact to get outside, or aloft, is perhaps a sort of madness, a peculiarly unreasonable “you must”…. The man of such a “Beyond,” who wants to get even in sight of the highest standards of worth of his age, must first of all “surmount” this age in himself—it is the test of his power—and consequently not only of his age, but also his past aversion and opposition to his age, his suffering caused by his age, his unseasonableness, his Romanticism. (§ 380)
Nietzsche certainly recognized himself in these challenges and efforts, and he even seemed conscious of the effects he himself describes. In the preface, he declared that, “Life—that means for us to transform constantly into light and flame all that we are, and also all that we meet with; we cannot possibly do otherwise.” In section 315, he observes,
Storms are my danger. Shall I have my storm in which I shall perish…? Or shall I go out as a light does, not first blown out by the wind, but grown tired and weary of itself—a burnt-out light? Or, finally, shall I blow myself out, so as not to burn out?
In the poem “Ecce Homo,” Nietzsche once again employs the flame metaphor to describe himself and his task:
Yes, I know where I’m related,
Like the flame, unquenched, unsated,
I consume myself and glow:
All’s turned to light I lay my hand on,
All to coal that I abandon,
Yes, I am a flame, I know! (# 62, “Prelude in Rhyme”)
In this context, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetic self-description might ultimately be applied to Nietzsche:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
The Gay Science is Nietzsche at his best. Stylistically, it stands as a testament to the author’s brilliance as a poet and a prose innovator. Philosophically, it makes explicit for the first time many of Nietzsche’s most important ideas, such as “the death of God,” “the eternal recurrence of the same,” and the “Dionysian” attitude of “amor fati, the love of fate.” Thematically, it represents the important transition in his authorship, from the earlier aphoristic books, to the more experimental approach of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and beyond.
Dennis Sweet holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Iowa. He writes frequently on Kant, Heraclitus, and Nietzsche, and teaches philosophy and history at several colleges in Pittsburgh.